By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, December 1, 2017
Despite the early comparisons, Michael Andrew wants everyone to know – and realize – that he isn’t Michael Phelps.
Never has been. Never will be.
And he’s good with that. If anything, it’s something he’s always wanted and always known.
“I never wanted to be the next Michael Phelps; I just want to be the best first Michael Andrew,” he said. “It’s a great compliment and honor, but there’s enough natural pressure in swimming than to add trying to be like the GOAT. I can only be as good as I can be.”
That’s something Andrew said he always accepted – but it’s not necessarily one the rest of the swimming world and media, in particular, were ready to accept when he became the youngest American swimmer to go pro four years ago.
As the comparisons to Phelps and being the next American phenom circulated, the expectations were high even though he was still developing at 14 years old.
He had only been swimming seriously – competitively – for a few years and still had a lot of growing to do.
But it didn’t matter.
“It was a crazy rollercoaster the first two years in particular, but I never regretted going pro so young, and I was definitely part of the decision to do it,” he said. “When I first went pro, I felt like I had this weight on my shoulders to swim fast right away and win.
“When that didn’t happen regularly, I tried to find my own value because I knew I could never fulfil the expectations of others. I’ve never depended upon swimming to find my worth or identity, and that made the transition easier.”
In addition to being a young pro who hadn’t even finished high school yet, there were other factors that made Andrew and his family “different” than everyone else in the sport.
He and his younger sister, Michaela, trained using the USRPT – Ultra Short Race Pace Training – system with their dad, Peter, as their coach. While he swam in his home country of South Africa, he and the USRPT were viewed with skepticism and a little mistrust.
“I would never say we felt ostracized or unaccepted by the swimming community, because we weren’t, but I definitely think we were misunderstood as a swimming family,” said Andrew, who was born in Aberdeen, S.D., but has lived and trained in Lawrence, Kan., for the past 7 years. “But over the past couple of years, we’ve broken down those barriers.
“I think my not being immediately successful helped that process. People saw me as human and not strange robot or unknown entity who trains and lives differently. I’m just a normal kid from Kansas who loves to swim.”
Andrew said while the past few years have had their fair share of ups and downs, he’s learned some valuable lessons along the way.
While he had a strong meet at Olympic Trials last summer – earning a spot in the final of the 100 breaststroke and narrowly missing a spot on the team – Andrew said this summer’s World Junior Championships was where he enjoyed his greatest satisfaction as a competitive swimmer.
He enjoyed his true breakthrough meet – making good on all of the early promise he showed – by winning three gold medals and setting three new Junior World records in the process.
He won the 50 backstroke, 50 freestyle and 50 butterfly and also won bronze in the 50 and 100 breaststroke events to walk away with the Swimmer of the Meet honor.
Even though he won five medals – highlighted by gold in the 50 back along with two silvers in the 50 free and 50 fly – at 2015 World Juniors, he said he felt this year has revealed his true swimming prowess and where he felt the most included by his USA Swimming teammates.
“I was glad to win the medals and swim fast, no doubt about that, but what meant the most to me was that this was the first team trip I’ve been part of where I was voted a team captain; I drew a lot of inspiration from that,” said Andrew, who won gold in the 100 individual medley last December at FINA Short Course World Championships.
“I swam a lot of events at this Junior Worlds, and was incredibly excited about my 50s races and breaking three world marks in a single session. That was really special to me.”
Last month, Andrew, who turned 18 this past April, went on his first international meet trip by himself to a World Cup meet in Beijing, China.
He said the experience is another step in his growth process as he gains more independence – although he admitted that it was a little strange being in his hotel room by himself and not having family there to say goodnight.
Competing in the Water Cube – the home of the 2008 Olympic swimming competition and Phelps’ amazing feat – brought back great memories of the first Olympics Andrew really remembers paying attention to as a kid.
In many ways, it was that meet that spurred his interest in becoming a competitive swimmer – and after that is when he truly started believing he could do special things in the water someday.
Through it all, Andrew said he has always relied upon his faith in God and support of his strong family to help guide him along the way.
Whether or not he ever makes an Olympic team or earns an Olympic medal, he said he knows God has a plan for him and his life, and he finds great strength and solace in that.
“When you’re a professional swimmer, it’s your job and you’re expected to perform and win, and realizing that I couldn’t win everything helped me grow as a person,” said Andrew, who is now looking forward to swimming a few European World Cup events and then the spring TYR Pro Swim Series meets before next summer’s Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, where the 2018 Pan Pacific and 2019 World Championship teams are selected.
“My faith in God helped me through that and continues to help me through it. I’ve always believed that if you give great effort and work hard, no matter what you’re doing, God will do great things with you. I can have a terrible practice or meet and still find joy outside of swimming because of my faith. It’s what keeps me grounded and driving forward.”
Check out Andrew’s adventures in and out of the pool as he travels the United States and world for swimming competitions at his YouTube Channel